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Down vs. Synthetic Insulation for Backcountry Hunting

Dalton Gray,
November 14, 2022

          Whether it’s time to layer up against dropping temperatures, or time to tuck into your sleeping bag at the end of a long day in the woods, insulation in the backcountry is of paramount importance. Protection from the elements is one of the most vital factors when considering gear for a backcountry hunt, because without it, you likely won’t be able to endure the elements that you’ll encounter in the field. In the market for hunting apparel, “puffy gear” has become very popular both for its high warmth-to-weight ratio and also its packability. There are two main types of insulation when it comes to sleeping bags and puffy gear, whether it’s pants or jacket: down and synthetic insulation.

          First, we’ll discuss Down fill insulation and its pros and cons. Down has been the staple of lightweight insulation for decades because it doesn’t require a very complicated manufacturing process, at least until recent years. Down is usually made up of two types of feather “fill”, goose feathers, and duck feathers, with the most popular being goose down. This is the case because goose feather is readily available on the market and its warmth-to-weight ratio is better than any other type of insulation available. However, Down insulation has been plagued by one factor right from the start, clumping. Clumping is a term used for when down becomes saturated with moisture and no longer retains its “loft” which therefore forfeits its warmth. The sole purpose of Down insulation is to keep warm air from your body temperature close to your body, and at the same time not allow the outside temperature to suck the heat away from it. This of course becomes impossible when your insulation comprised of feather clumps becomes saturated and can no longer keep the air next to your body warm and protected from the elements.

For years, hunters dealt with this downfall - no pun intended - and just understood that keeping their down jacket dry was an absolute necessity. After decades of consumers reporting the problems with traditional down products, there came a solution. Hydrophobic Down, a Goose Down fill product, but instead of just feathers, they’ve been manufactured with a treatment applied to the feather fill of the garment. This process varies from one manufacturer to the next and most work the same. Hydrophobic down is a significant improvement over traditional untreated Down mainly in its drying time after it gets wet. Untreated Down soaks to the core and takes a long time to dry out completely and regain its loft - a difficult task in the backcountry when you’re often living out of a tent with no heat source. Unless you’re able to start a fire in the middle of wet weather and hang your jacket or sleeping bag to dry in the heat, your Down product will be wet for multiple days on end. The treated down products, however, do not absorb moisture to its core and therefore takes much longer to “wet out” and lose its loft, and in that, lose its insulating properties. Treated down sleeping bags and puffy gear have allowed consumers to utilize the weight savings offered in Down products, while decreasing the chances that they’ll be left saturated and freezing should their insulation become wet. There are many benefits to using Down products, but there are an equal number of concerns to consider and take seriously before making a decision on which is right for you. Just because you can save a few pounds in your pack, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. Entering the competition: Synthetics.

          Synthetic insulation has been around for many years, but not necessarily in the outdoor industry. Hunters have the luxury today of modern processes being able to offer puffy gear and sleeping bags comprised of insulation that is extremely resistant to moisture, therefore allowing peace of mind in the backcountry that if our equipment gets wet, it will still properly insulate and retain the necessary warmth. Synthetic fill products are generally going to be heavier and bulkier compared to Down insulation. This is because synthetic insulation is comprised of many individual strands of fiber woven together to form the insulating layer. These woven fibers of insulation are not as compressible as Down is and therefore creates more bulk in a product. Synthetic insulation is also heavier than Down when comparing products of each type that are rated for the same temperature range. It is for these two reasons alone that many hunters pass up synthetic fill products because they are in search of the absolute lightest weight product possible and are willing to take the extra precautions necessary to keep their Down products dry.

Synthetic fibers are almost impervious to moisture, and do not absorb water molecules. This allows the user to climb into a synthetic sleeping bag, while wet, and the body heat generated inside the bag will “push” the moisture off of your body and through the fibers and onto the face fabric of the bag. This could be the difference between life or death if you were to fall into a river in the backcountry and need to get warm quickly. Another thing to consider when choosing which insulation is best for you is longevity. Down products can be washed and regain their loft and therefore extend their useful life, whereas a Synthetic garment isn’t built with the same baffle design as a Down products, which allows the insulation to be manipulated and worn thin in varying areas of the product. This creates what are called cold spots, and are a sign of your product’s useful life coming to an end. Synthetic insulation cannot be re-distributed evenly across the garment or bag during a wash cycle, whereas Down products can be washed and “revived” to like-new condition after hard use.

          While Down and Synthetic fill products both have distinct advantages and disadvantages, it is ultimately up to the individual to decide which best suits their intended use. We are fortunate to live in a time where advancements in textile and insulation technology give us many different options as hunters for what suits our individual needs in the backcountry. Possibly the best solution to the dilemma of insulation is to have both Down and Synthetic garments and sleeping bags to choose from depending on the type of weather you expect to encounter afield. For those hunting in a dry climate region, Down offers the weight and space savings and will likely perform adequately in the conditions encountered. For hunts in extreme wet environments, Synthetic insulation is likely the better choice despite its added weight and bulk. The performance offered in wet climates is worth the extra weight in my opinion and could mean a real difference on a hunt where you find yourself wet for days on end. Being able to trust your gear even while it is soaking wet is no small thing to consider.

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